A life-changing investment in graduate studies
By Kathleen Mabley
“You know, you are an incredible teacher and you have enormous potential for a career in education, but you need a master’s degree.”
With those words from a woman she had just met, a seed was planted for first grade teacher Lori Schneider. For a small town girl who was just happy to have a job she liked, the thought seemed quite a stretch. Little did she know that not only would she get a master’s degree, but she would also become a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin. And she never dreamed that her tuition would be paid for her by a very unlikely source. Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to believe in you.
During her nine years teaching first and second grade at Summitt Elementary School in Austin, Schneider discovered she had a talent for creating a classroom environment that was supportive and encouraging for emotionally disturbed children and children with attention-deficit issues. Using high expectations and positive reinforcement, she empowered and supported her students, and taught them to support each other.
Meanwhile, Linda Stallones Classen, then the Austin Independent School District 504 coordinator, whose role it is to provide students with disabilities equal access to educational programs, services, and activities, began to hear Lori Schneider’s name in relation to the children associated with her program.
“When I visited Summitt to help administrators and teachers brainstorm about how to handle a particular child with serious behavior problems,” Classen says, “they kept saying, ‘Lori can handle this, we’ll send him to Lori. She knows how to connect with him.’” Since Schneider was not the child’s teacher, Classen was confused as to why she would be involved. After hearing about Schneider over and over, she decided it was time to pay this teacher a visit.
“At first, it seemed like any other classroom. There were two classes of kids on the rug listening to a lesson,” says Classen. “But then, something different happened. Every time a child gave an answer, other children would say things like ‘good answer’ or ‘good job’ to their classmate. At the end of the lesson, a few children went up to Lori and said ‘Great job, Ms. Schneider!’ I had never seen anything like it.”
Classen continues, “The electricity of joy and happiness in that classroom was noticeable. The room was alive with kids happy to be there. They were learning to value and support each other. This had clearly been taught.” And it was Lori Schneider who taught them.
So impressed was she with what she saw in Schneider’s classroom, Classen eventually invited Schneider to help train administrators and educators. Classen offered expertise on current strategies, while Schneider shared her thoughts on how to implement them in the classroom. They traveled together to speak at conferences such as CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and TEPSA (Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association). Schneider went on to speak both statewide and nationally about working successfully with students with disabilities.
Schneider shares her philosophy that every person we meet has strengths and weaknesses. If teachers and classmates can help a child practice their strengths and learn strategies to conquer their weaknesses, she believes, then not only does that child benefit, but those supporting the child benefit as well.
“Having people in our lives with different strengths makes our lives better and richer,” says Schneider. “If a child can see past another child’s physical or behavioral challenges to a strength that they possess, both children become more accepting and their lives are better for it.”
Throughout this time, Schneider gained a new confidence. Linda Classen believed in Schneider and encouraged her to dream of new possibilities. They talked about career goals and how Schneider’s ideas and concepts could benefit children beyond just her classroom. And Schneider had not forgotten the off-the-cuff comment about pursuing a graduate degree from the woman she barely knew at the time. The woman who was now a very close friend and mentor…Linda Classen.
The seed Classen had planted for Schneider began to grow and she decided that she did need a graduate degree in order to expand her career possibilities. She enrolled in a master’s degree program at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) to study curriculum and instruction during the summers while she continued her teaching and speaking obligations.
One semester shy of completing her degree, she ran into a bump in the road. At dinner with Linda and her husband, Nick, Schneider broke the news that she would not be able to continue her studies. “I can’t afford the tuition right now,” she told Nick and Linda. “I’m going to have to wait to finish my program.”
Nick Classen had just met this young woman. He was impressed with her drive and dedication. He had heard wonderful things about her talent from Linda. He wanted her to finish her degree.
“A graduate degree gives you contacts and friends in higher educational circles,” says Nick. “She had demonstrated that she cared enough about her chosen field to go the extra step to get a graduate degree. That represents a drive and enthusiasm for her field that is very impressive. She needed that degree to get ahead.”
Adds Linda, “When I first started my graduate program, all I wanted was the piece of paper that would let me get the job that I wanted. But I learned something every day that I used in my job for 30 years. Lori has an innate talent. A graduate degree would take her gifts and let her grow and develop in ways we cannot imagine. That is what we wanted to support.”
And despite the fact that he had just met Schneider that night, Nick Classen offered to pay the tuition for her final semester. Schneider was overwhelmed. “But I’m not sure I can ever pay you back,” she told the Classens. Nick told her to consider it a long-term interest free loan that was for him “an investment in our school district, AISD.”
Eventually, Nick took it a step further and also offered to pay her tuition if she ever decided to pursue her doctoral degree. But the Classens supported her talent in many other ways beyond Nick’s financial support. They have been Schneider’s mentors, cheerleaders, and surrogate parents.
“In addition to the money, it was the nurturing of my soul that they have provided. I am where I am because of what they have done for my self-esteem,” says Schneider.
She continues to dream big. As principal of Kiker Elementary School in Austin for the past five years, she has spent the past two pursuing her doctor of education (Ed.D.) degree in the Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP) at UT. For her dissertation, she plans to research the interactions and relationships of a first-year principal with parents and teachers.
“The more people you have in your life, the more strengths you have available to you,” Schneider says. “The strengths and talents of others are not only resources for you, but for our entire community… Connection, respect, and acceptance of others’ strengths and weaknesses into our lives will only enrich our community and make a difference in tomorrow and for the world.”
Just look at what happened when the Classens supported the talent in Lori Schneider. And who knows what she might do next?
If you are interested in supporting other talented graduate students like Lori Schneider, please visit the Support Graduate Education page.
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